The Iranian Revolution, Part II
By the summer of 1978 the Shah was in deep trouble. In August
400 people died in a fire at a cinema. Although evidence
available after the Revolution suggested that the fire was
deliberately started by religiously inclined students, the
opposition carefully cultivated a widespread conviction that the
fire was the work of the secret police (Savak). On September 7th
the government declared martial law in Tehran to combat
demonstrations that had been growing in the city. On the 8th,
troops fired into a crowd. The official death toll of 87 was on the
light side. This came to be known as "Black Friday." It
radicalized the opposition and made compromise with the
regime, even by the moderates, less likely. [The parallels to the
recent student -led protests in Tehran are striking].
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khomenei, who had been expelled from
Iraq and forced to set up shop in Paris, was able to publicize his
movement before the world press. It also made for easier
communication with his lieutenants in Tehran and other Iranian
cities, thus permitting better coordination of the opposition
movement. And political and religious leaders, who were cut off
from Khomenei while he was in Iraq, were now able to visit him
for direct consultations.
Khomenei was born in 1900. He preached the 7th-century
lessons of the Shari''a (Islamic Law) and campaigned for the
ouster of the Shah. The goal was to install a modern theocracy
(in which leaders are "divinely" inspired)
On November 5, 1978, after violent demonstrations in Tehran,
the Shah addressed the nation for the first time in many months
declaring he had heard the people''s "revolutionary message,"
and promised to correct past mistakes. Too bad. The strikes
resumed, shutting down the government, and clashes between
demonstrators and troops became a daily occurrence.
By the end of the year, the Shah began exploratory talks with
members of the moderate opposition. Shapour Baktiar agreed to
form a government on the condition that the Shah leave the
country. The Shah, announcing he was going abroad for a short
holiday, left the country on January 16, 1979. As his aircraft
took off, celebrations broke out across the country.
The first prime minister was Mehdi Bazargan, not Baktiar.
Bazargan, however, headed a government that controlled neither
the country nor even its own bureaucratic apparatus. Central
authority had broken down. A range of political groups, from the
far left to the far right, were vying for power.
The "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Khomenei, did not consider
himself bound by the government. On February 1st, he landed
from exile in Paris to tumultuous acclaim. In his book "The
American Century," Harold Evans writes of this time, "Possibly,
a letter then from (President) Carter apologizing for past U.S.
interference might have appeased Khomeini, who blamed Savak
and ultimately the U.S. for the deaths of both his father and his
son. Little understood outside the country was how real and
explosive was Iranian resentment of generations of exploitation
by one foreign power or another, and how much the Shiite
Muslim clergy (of which Khomenei was one) detested the
infiltration of Western cultural values on everything from the
status of women to rock ''n'' roll."
Khomenei had established the Revolutionary Council while he
was in exile. It was composed of clerics close to Khomenei,
political leaders identified with Bazargan, and two
representatives of the armed forces. While Bazargan''s cabinet
was to serve as the executive authority, it was the Revolutionary
Council that wielded supreme decision-making and legislative
Differences quickly emerged between the cabinet and the
council. The cabinet wanted a return to normalcy and rapid
reassertion of central authority. Clerics of the Revolutionary
Council, more responsive to the Islamic and popular temper of
the mass of their followers, generally favored more radical
economic and social measures. They also proved more willing
and able to mobilize and to use the street crowd and the
revolutionary organizations to achieve their ends.
Revolutionary courts were soon established in Tehran and
provincial centers. The Tehran court passed death sentences on
four of the Shah''s generals on February 16th; all four were
executed by firing squad on the roof of the building housing
Khomenei''s headquarters. More executions followed on a daily
The activities of these "courts" became a focus of intense
controversy. Left-wing political groups and clerics pressed hard
for "revolutionary justice" for miscreants of the former regime.
On the other hand, lawyers and human rights groups protested
the arbitrary nature of the revolutionary courts, the vagueness of
charges and the absence of defense lawyers. Prime Minister
Bazargan shut down their activities on March 14th. The courts
were reestablished on April 6th with new guidelines. The next
day, despite international please for clemency, Hoveyda, the
Shah''s prime minister for twelve years, was put to death.
Bazargan met with President Carter''s national security adviser,
Zbigniew Brzezinski, in Algiers, on November 1st. Meanwhile,
the Shah, who was seriously ill, was admitted to the U.S. for
medical treatment (he had been living in Mexico). Iranians
feared that the Shah would use this visit to the U.S. to secure
support for an attempt to overthrow the Islamic Republic. On
November 1st hundreds of thousands marched in Tehran to
demand the Shah''s extradition, while the press denounced
Bazargan for meeting with a key U.S. official. By November 6th
Bazargan resigned and no prime minister was named to replace
him. Just two days earlier, young men who later designated
themselves "students of the Imam''s line," occupied the U.S.
Next week, the Hostage Crisis and the next step in the Iranian